The ABCs of DSD Downloads

A Primer on DSD Hardware and Software

Equipment report
Categories:
Audio,
Music servers and computer audio,
Rock,
Jazz,
Classical
The ABCs of DSD Downloads

Downloads NOW! (downloadsnow.net). The sister site of recording engineer Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast Records, Downloads NOW! has a limited number of releases, but offers both DSF and DFF versions of some albums. Besides DSD releases, albums are offered as physical gold CDs, 44.1/16 WAV, 88.2/24 WAV, 96/24 WAV, 176.4/24 WAV, and 192/24 WAV PCM downloads. Note that only uncompressed WAV files are sold—no compressed FLAC files. Prices depend on the format and the program length, but generally mirror the Blue Coast Records prices.

The performers on most of Download NOW!’s albums are small groups or soloists, decidedly not classical. The exception to this is recordings of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony playing Mahler Symphonies 1 and 2. These are the priciest of the site’s recordings, with Symphony No. 1 selling for prices ranging from $20 for 44.1/16 WAV download through 176.4/24 WAV download PCM recordings, and both DSF and DFF versions of DSD recordings sell for $50. This 56 minute recording takes 2.2GB of space. Didn’t I mention that DSD recordings are huge? But that’s nothing; the 88-minute Symphony No. 2’s recording takes 3.51GB of space, and is priced at a commensurately high $75! If that seems exorbitant, remember that this recording was originally released on two SACDs. Incidentally, Blue Coast Records also offers a helpful Web site called DSD-Guide.com, with lots of very valuable information about DSD recordings.

Since I’m a Mahler fan, I decided to download the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler First. After choosing the DFF version of the album, I paid up with PayPal, and came to the download manager. Download arrangements were the same as on Blue Coast Records. All the symphony’s movements were individually zipped, or compressed. Extracting the DFF files from the zip files wasn’t hard, but requires an additional step for each movement, which may be a challenge for someone with limited computer experience. If all the movements of the symphony and the cover art/liner notes had all been included in a single zip file, I would have only had to download a single file. That’s how Cybele Records handles its downloads, and it automatically extracts the DFF files from the zip file for you.

All the downloading complications were worthwhile. Under conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony has become a world-class orchestra, and on this recording MTT leads them through one of the most popular symphonies in the modern repertoire. Recorded at a fairly low level, this recording features string sound that is just exquisite. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard better. Reference Recordings’ album of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps, a 176.4/24 PCM recording, was my previous benchmark for symphonic string sound, but MTT’s Mahler First sounds more realistic. The orchestra plays with great discipline and climaxes are thrilling.

Channel Classics Records (channelclassics.com). Channel Classics’ name gives away the type of repertoire the company specializes in. Channel Classics has several major artists in its stable, including conductor Ivan Fischer and violinist Rachel Podger. I’ve been a Channel Classics customer for some time, since it offers a combination once thought to have been impossible: great performances in great sound. Now that it offers its recordings in DSD, the sound is even better. Channel Classics is a full-service music company, offering recordings in MP3 ($9.94), 44.1/24 FLAC ($15.47), 96/24 FLAC ($18.78), and 192/24 FLAC ($22.10), and now DSD64 DFF files ($33.15) in either two-channel or multichannel 5.1 format. For those who prefer physical media, SACDs are available for $22.10, the same as 192/24 downloads. The download prices are marked Special, but have been in effect for quite a long time. Prices are higher for multiple-CD recordings. For example, Rachel Podger’s recording of Vivaldi’s La Stravaganza, normally on two CDs, costs $35.36.

Channel Classics offers a free download of the week so you can sample its wares in full fidelity, not just the streaming samples offered by most music companies (and by Channel Classics, too). They also have several sampler albums at a reduced price: $8.84 for all formats. Channel Classics has its own download manager, which makes downloading music files easy.

I had already downloaded Channel Classics’ sampler Super Artists on Super Audio vol.5 for a review, along with some sample files. Samplers are good choices for reviewers, since they offer a collection of the different types of music a company offers, and in this case, at a definite savings. Channel Classics’ download manager makes the download process simple, and places the downloaded files on your computer’s desktop, where they are easy to find and move. I compared this album in both DSD and FLAC format, and found the DSD to have consistently more natural sound.